Digital Jeopardy

by rthieme on October 23, 1998

In the television game show Jeopardy, contestants are given answers and asked to come up with the right questions. Wired Magazine provides a similar feature, juxtaposing statements by dead technocrats – a recent issue interviewed Nikola Tesla, for example – with modern questions.

At first it felt like a disconnect, plugging questions into answers. But then I thought of how we do history. I was taught that “history” was fixed, as objective as laws of thermodynamics. Then revisionist history hit the streets. New heroines and heroes were uncovered and linked to different questions. The kaleidoscope turned, the pattern of the past dissolved and reformed.

Those in the dominant culture often had a hard time hearing challenges to patterns of meaning they thought were immutable. A white male Christian heterosexual New Englander told me he was trying to understand the various ethnic groups but it was difficult when you didn’t belong to one yourself.

The World Wide Web has millions of web sites. Thousands more ignite and glow like new stars every day. It isn’t a glitzy interface or twirling animations that matter most but the depth of the content they contain. A map of the Web weighted according to relevance would look like a planetary map, with giants in the foreground and lots of little rocks in outer orbits.

We would all draw that map differently. The pattern of the Web flows into colors and contours that only a moment ago would have been unthinkable. The relevance of sites on cancer, say, or Y2K, is determined by our questions, not by their intrinsic value. Intrinsic value is a function of our life situation, which shades and arranges the data. The Web has billions and billions of answers, but the pattern of our questions connects those luminous dots into constellations.

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